Refuting the case for destruction of Garbh Choire Refuge

A mountain rescuer outside the Garbh Choire Bothy, Cairngorms

An MR team member outside the Garbh Choire Refuge. Picture courtesy of Heather Morning.

I received a rather longer than usual response to the Garbh Choire Refuge page from George Allan, a member of the North East Mountain Trust.

Rather cheekily, he includes a case for removing the refuge, presumably mistaking this for an impartial court. Make no mistake: I’m fully in favour of retaining and repairing the Garbh Choire Refuge.

However here’s his comment below, after which I’ll address the points he raises in the case for removal. I’ve taken the liberty of inserting numbers in his arguments for removal, to make cross reference easier, but otherwise the comment in italics is his own.

Neil Reid and Kenny Freeman are to be commended on their document arguing the case for retention and doing the bothy up.

The committee of the North East Mountain Trust discussed their paper recently, along with one favouring removal written by another committee member. NEMT is in the process of canvassing its members’ views.

The decision on the future of the bothy lies entirely with the National Trust for Scotland which will, presumable, take soundings, and consult the Cairngorm Park Authority before making a decision. There seem to be two options-a] rebuild it pretty well exactly as it is and then maintain it- the option that the Mountain Bothies Assn has an interest in or b] dismantle and, as far as possible, leave no trace of its existance.

There are two other options but no one party to the North East Mountain Trust discussions favoured them. These are, firstly, rebuild making it bigger and secondly leave it to deteriorate.

For the sake of completeness these are the arguments for complete removal: – 1-It is in an area of wild land par excellence. Removal would return this to a pristine state with no evidence of man’s intrusion. These coires really are an exceptional case in the way that Fords of Avon is not.

2-The bothy was built in the 1960s by members of the Lairig Club to facilitate developments in the Braeriach coires. At that time, most climbers went in from the south. It serves this purpose much less now as most go in via various routes from the north. In addition, modern light weight tents have altered the situation.

3– There is an emerging path around it and this is likely to become more obvious if it is retained.

4– The cultural heritage argument is questionable. It could be applied to almost anything which had been touched by man.

5– The safety argument is circular. It could also be used to justify retaining any buildings. For example, Jean’s Hut and the Sinclair hut could have been retained on this basis.

In putting forward the case for removal, I am not saying that I support either this or retention. However, people need to considered all angles.

George Allan

So here goes. I’ll take his arguments one by one.

1- This really is the strongest argument against retention of the refuge, but George – and several others in other forums – says in this that the Garbh Choire IS an area of wild land par excellence, not “would be if the hut was removed”. Mar Lodge Estate’s own policies recognise that the existence of a man-made structure does not necessarily detract from a feeling of wilderness and can even enhance it. My own feeling is that the Garbh Choire Refuge is a very small structure, with its visible elements mainly native stone, barely even recognisable as man-made from most angles. Even standing right outside the refuge, that area seems pretty damned wild to me, and not a whit diminished.

(Incidentally, by claiming the Fords of Avon not to be an apt comparison he loses me. If you’ve ever walked north past the Dubh Lochain, across the rocks and peatbog south of the River Avon, peering across the river at a barely distinguishable pile of stones, with the wind and rain making you flinch, you’ll find it hard to credit that this area is any less wild or pristine than the Garbh Choire.)

2 – It’s a curious assertion that the refuge no longer serves a function, given the amount of interest roused by its present plight. The argument that it is no longer needed because climbers mostly come from the north these days is even more curious. Does a northern access route mean you have no need of shelter from the elements? In any case, no evidence is presented that this is actually the case. I suspect this argument originated in a comment in the current Cairngorm Climbing Guide referring to winter climbing in the Garbh Choire and suggesting that bicycle access up Gleann Einich made it accessible for a day visit. This may well be true if conditions are right and you are superbly fit, but I doubt if most climbers would consider it a day crag and, whatever the direction of access, most would require some form of accommodation nearer than Glen More, whether that be bothy or tent.

3 – “There is an emerging path…” There is indeed. Almost 50 years since the refuge was first built and it has still failed to emerge in anything more than rudimentary and fragmentary fashion – and most of those years were years when the refuge was allegedly better used and when climbers allegedly came from the south. The fact is that, although people do use it, and may well be more tempted to use it were it weathertight, it is not on any major through route and unlikely ever to see intensive use of the sort that creates scars.

4 – “The cultural heritage is questionable…” This one actually makes me angry. I believe Scotland’s bothy culture is something to be intensely proud of and to safeguard zealously. In this country, at a time when we are seeing daily evidence of greed, capitalism run wild and rampant consumerism, we have another culture: one where volunteers look after a network of bothies, buildings in wild and remote areas, which are expressly open to all, regardless of money, club membership or even passport, where strangers are made welcome and can receive advice and practical help, where people of common purpose (though from all walks of life) can meet informally and on equal terms and enjoy each others society.

Mr Allan (or the originator of this argument – for I understand that George is airing arguments in the interests of fairness rather than necessary conviction) may not feel such a culture exists, but I am fiercely passionate about this: this is MY culture and that of my companions in the hills. We look around and see the National Trust for Scotland with a portfolio heavy with ‘stately homes’ – monuments to the robber barons of yesteryear; we see contemporary X-Factor and Apprentice culture, where people strive for empty celebrity and find pleasure in others’ humiliation. How can anyone then claim that “the cultural heritage argument is questionable”? There is considerable literature in existence which speaks of Scotland’s bothy culture and it can be seen in action in a bothy somewhere every day. There is a limited number of bothies in the highlands: no more are being built yet existing bothies are being lost (Sinclair, Jean’s Hut and others). When do we say enough is enough? My own view is that the National Trust for Scotland should hang its head in blackest shame if, while preserving the ‘culture’ of the rich and powerful, it destroys a manifestation of a culture that is uniquely Scottish and speaks of the very best in human nature. Rant over.

5 – The safety argument. Funnily enough, I actually agree with this one – to a point. You could improve safety by building refuges like this in every glen in the land, but few could justify that (let alone bear the cost). However, while it’s not a sufficient factor on its own, this refuge is already in existence, and the safety dividend it offers is a factor to be considered.

And that’s about it. Apologies to George Allan if I’ve appeared to have a go at him – I understand the arguments were formulated by a third party and that George is presenting them in the interests of balance.

In fact I bear no ill will towards anyone who believes the refuge should be removed on wilderness grounds. It’s a valid argument, even if I don’t agree with it. But don’t let anyone tell you there’s no cultural heritage argument – that is ignorance (willful or otherwise) which must not go unchallenged.

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5 Responses to Refuting the case for destruction of Garbh Choire Refuge

  1. Tom Cunningham says:

    Excellent responses Neil, the case is very clear, the bothy must be retained.

  2. Interesting debate and a case well put Neil.
    I would add another set of viewpoints from someone who will travel a long way to experience what you guys can take for granted.

    1. Safety..we live in a nanny state environment where the rule of health and safety is bandied about in order to justify sometimes ridiculous processes. Part of the enjoyment of being out in the hills is to enjoy the risk. If we justify the existence of such shelters on these terms we should have one in every area of remote country. If there is no risk there is no challenge, if there is no challenge there is no feeling of achievement. The safety argument in my book is not justifiable and in fact is counter productive to the enjoyment of the hills. If you are not prepared to accept the risks and not capable of dealing with them you shouldn’t be there.

    2. Living now in an area of the country where you cannot get away from mans intrusion into the wilderness areas I feel very strongly about retaining what wild country we have. I would not just stop at the removal of this bothy but would have most of the proliferation of cairns and monuments taken out of our wild areas. This I know is a very arrogant point of view but I work daily in areas like the Lakes and Snowdonia and the Brecons and resent the signs, constructed paths etc etc. The hills are for all but we must be careful of preserving what we have. I am not for making access easier, I would make it harder ( re point 1) and that way we are less likely to face increasing erosion issues, rare wildlife being ousted by the passing of too many feet.
    I cannot presume to know the cairngorms as you do Neil but would comment on the likes of Camusanary in Skye where sometimes the main reason for going to this area is to go to the bothy ( which is still one of my favourite places on the face of this earth and holds many happy memories for me ). The bothies undoubtedly do create additional footfall and therefore do impinge upon our wild areas.
    We also however have to careful of what we stand to lose here, the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia, Exmoor all national parks do not allow wild camping, the Cairngorms also now a national park could go this way, you never know and once any decision is made by the suits you have no chance in changing it. Guard aggressively what you have, you are so lucky to have the right to roam and camp in these wilderness areas. I will drive a long way to experience this.

    3. Culture, I cannot and do not presume to argue against your case, again I have spent many happy times in these bothies having a dram and a smoke. However we have to ask ourselves what aspect of the culture of the bothies we wish to preserve and whether it is indeed possible to do this.
    I have humped all my climbing gear etc etc into a remote area, spent the day climbing, come down to a bothy in a state of near collapse only to find a group of individuals who have used their energies to hump in a ghetto blaster and cases of alcohol and who have taken over the bothy to have a birthday party. They destroy, in my mind, what the culture of the bothies was/should be ( Or again am I being arrogant in my ideals)
    Is not the culture of the bothy one to provide shelter in remote areas before we had lightweight tents. Where you arranged to meet your mates who had spent the day climbing or walking and enjoying the wilderness.
    Like the culture of camping, go to the lake district now on a bank holiday w/end and you will find most campsites stuffed with louts intent on self destruction through alcohol. This is what the culture of camping has become in the south. It is becoming so prevalent that we only go to the campsites that have no facilities as these are the ones that are avoided by the mainstream.
    So what culture do we wish to preserve, one of like minded individuals who love the hills and come together to have a dram or two before sleeping or one of providing a party space for groups of individuals who justify their self destruction by taking part in hill walking, and thereby rendering the usage of the bothy impractical by others .
    Again the hills are for all but we have to be careful in this as most things will be abused by an unfortunately growing number of people. If they are there they will be abused, do not doubt it

    My points here only seek to put over a different viewpoint, I do not live in Scotland now and do not wander the gorms as I once did so do not feel I have the right to argue for or against.
    I am however very concerned about preserving what we have before it is lost forever.

    • Hi Chris, somehow I knew you were going to disagree with this, and I suspect there are some arguments you and I will never agree on.
      I won’t argue too much with your safety argument though. My views aren’t quite so stringent as your own, but I know where you’re coming from and agree – to a point, as they say. I certainly wouldn’t use the safety argument as the sole justification.
      As for the wilderness, I suppose it’s a question of degree. I and a lot of others don’t feel the refuge presents such a blot on the wilderness (man is a natural creature too, remember) as justifies its removal. I don’t think the hills would be any less populated for removing the bothies, but, as someone on ukc pointed out, you would see more multi-coloured tents pitched further into the true wilderness areas of the coire complex. You’re speaking from a perspective of heavily used hills in England and Wales – luckily we’re not as busy as that oop here in’t north.
      As for the culture – I think we’re talking about different things here. To me, bothy culture is an awful lot more than just provision of basic dosses in the hills. I’ve imparted boundless wisdom and local knowledge to others in bothies (well, okay, showboated shamelessly with what little knowledge I do have), and received wisdom and knowledge too, both about the hills and the people who frequent them past and present. It’s a social thing as well as a physical provision. And, yes, sometimes it involves drink and sometimes it involves strangers – sometimes even both together. I’ve almost always found it a positive and enriching experience. I’ll grant you, sometimes you come across arseholes (drunken or otherwise) who are nothing but a pain, but what can I say? You get arseholes in every walk of life, and maybe not quite so many up the hills, but, aye, there’s always someone going to abuse the system. I know from helping to look after Corrour, the number of hours I’ve spent clearing up rubbish left by arseholes, but if that’s the cost of keeping that bothy open, then I’m happy to pay it. It’s a culture that maybe doesn’t appeal to you Chris, but then ballet has never appealed to me very much, and I wouldn’t deny that it is culture (or that it gets shitloads of grants, which is more than the bothies do).
      I think we’re both interested in the same thing in the hills, we just differ on where to draw the line on human visibility.
      Anyway, all the best Chris and hope we can catch up soon – in a bothy or out of one!

  3. Václav Juchelka says:

    Hi there, Neil!

    An interesting debate youre having here. All I can say (as I have used only 4 bothies in me life so far–in the Cairngorms that is) is that was there no Bob Scott’s I’d have never learnt so much about the bothy, hills and all. Never in me life would I have had the chance to participate and enjoy meself greatly while and especially after (but for the morning;=) rebuilding the Fords of Avon Refuge. Btw I even learnt to pronunce the Avon bit correctly then. And all the folks I met… What to say: had a great time!! And all of that because of one bothy.

    Cheers, Václav

    PS: Hana says hello too and is looking forward to more hikes in the hills soon!

    • Cheers Vaclav, You just underlined one of the great values of the bothy network. For the benefit of those who don’t know, you came here from the Czech Republic and joined in the spirit of bothy culture and helped with the rebuild of the Fords of Avon Refuge – an immersion in Scottish culture that would never have happened if you’d hidden away in a tent!
      Hope to see you back here again this year, Vaclav – and take Hana with you – she’s a lot easier on the eye than you are!!!

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